‘American Fiction’ Review: Jeffrey Wright in Cord Jefferson’s Clever Directorial Debut About the Black Artist’s Dilemma

In 1926, Langston Hughes wrote an essay about his disappointment in a young writer who expressed, “I want to be a poet — not a Negro poet.” Hughes used that lamentation to argue that this writer — of Black middle-class upbringing — wanted to be white. More interesting than Hughes’ pathologizing in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was his distillation of the time-worn tension among the Black artist, his work and his audience in a country founded on white supremacist ideals.

Black artists with mainstream aspirations in the United States indeed always come up against this nightmare scenario, rife with ignorance, projection, guilt and a dissatisfying seesaw of overhype and chronic underestimation. In 1955, James Baldwin penned an essay criticizing American protest fiction, a genre that he saw as over-sentimentalizing stories about Black people for the market. He accused his former mentor Richard Wright of peddling stereotypes in his novel Native Son instead of creating lived-in, human characters. Protest novels were commercial hits, however, and Wright’s novel was a bestseller.

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Tensions resurfaced more prominently in the late ’90s and early aughts, when the literary market pigeonholed Black writers and treated them as urban griots. The most celebrated works were the ones white editors and readers considered “authentic” (whatever that meant) or exposed the kind of gritty experiences of which white Americans considered Black life to be exclusively made. It’s during this round of the debate that the writer Percival Everett published his 2001 novel Erasure, a bleak satire about the book industry.

Twenty years later, Emmy-award winning writer Cord Jefferson (Watchmen) has adapted that blistering text into a film. American Fiction is a clever and charming offering for the next generation of writers facing the same existential questions.

Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a middle-aged Black man in the throes of a creative crisis. It’s been years since Monk, as his intimates call him, has published a book, and he wears the stress of this perceived unproductiveness on his face and in his hunched shoulders.

He also takes it out on his students. American Fiction begins with Monk, a college professor, teaching a class about America’s literary greats. After one student complains that the title of the Flannery O’Connor short story “The Artificial Nigger” is offensive and shouldn’t be written so prominently on the board, an exasperated Monk debates her. She walks out and he yells at the remaining students.

The incident leads to a disciplinary meeting and, eventually, a forced leave of absence. Monk begrudgingly moves from California back home to Boston, where his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) chastises him for his absence. Their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), is losing her memory and he never calls. Monk argues that no one appointed Lisa, a gynecologist, as caretaker, and that they have another sibling she could lean on. But Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) is unreliable, Lisa argues, and he’s got the kids and his plastic surgery practice in Tucson to manage.

Just as Monk is getting reacquainted with his sister, with whom he shares a special if awkward bond, she dies. The film cuts from scenes of the pair laughing at lunch to Monk watching Lisa through the operating room door and then, finally, to a small ceremony where the family reads her will and spreads her ashes.

The beginning of American Fiction establishes the film as both a satire and a family drama. It’s a challenge to adapt Everett’s novel — an experimental work composed of his protagonist’s journal entries, story ideas, meandering asides and academic papers — but Jefferson, who also wrote the screenplay, initially strikes a fair balance between these two genres. The writer-director wisely excerpts parts of Erasure that articulate the tension between Black artists and their audiences, and sneaks in his own jokes that situate American Fiction as a contemporary project. In one scene, Monk calls his agent Arthur (John Ortiz), who reads him a racist review of his last book, in which a critic admires Monk’s craft but wonders what a reworking of an ancient Greek tragedy has to do with the writer’s experience as a Black man.

American Fiction, like its source material, confronts and mocks the myopia of the cultural market. The audience in Toronto, where the film premiered, erupted into fits of laughter at scenes of Monk roasting a white colleague’s airport novels or an editor asking Monk to be a judge for a literary award because of recent internal reckonings. And yet the real humor is in the darker realization that demands of, and reactions to, work by Black artists haven’t changed. It was only a few years ago that institutions scrambled to commit to listening and learning about problems they created.

When Monk attends literary festivals or peruses the aisles of a bookstore, he finds that the latest Black bestseller is a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). Enraged by this most recent crowning of a mediocre work, Monk decides to write his own novel about the “Black experience.” His characters come to life during his late-night, alcohol-suffused draft process in a gratifying scene that captures a writer’s immersive, all-consuming relationship to work.

Monk pushes Arthur to submit his novel under a pseudonym to the editors that previously rejected him. A publisher offers almost a million dollars for the hack job. Monk, whose mother needs increasing care as her neurodegenerative disease worsens, is in no position to reject the money. Writing doesn’t pay much, and a leave of absence means he’s without a salary.

After he accepts the deal, his double life begins, with the film essentially alternating stretches of Monk’s professional and personal existences. But the tonal balance of satirical and emotional is disrupted the deeper Monk gets into the grift and starts dating his neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander). The movie begins shifting more awkwardly between the misanthropic writer posing as a fugitive convict (the excuse Monk claims to avoid press appearances) and Monk trying to manage his mother’s health, a new relationship and his brother Cliff’s own personal reckonings. Some of the dramatic moments — bathed in sweeping orchestral music — don’t land as forcefully as they should, hampered by the film’s increasingly uneven rhythm and pacing,

There’s also a lot of intellectual material to mine between Everett’s novel and the reality of being Black in America. American Fiction addresses much of it — from Monk’s middle-class upbringing and disdain for popular fiction to the moral valence of capitulating to market forces — with wit and eagerness. But the broad scope and complexity of these issues mean that some ideas are explored more confidently than others.

Still, American Fiction is smart and, thanks to its fine cast, has genuine heart. Wright plays Monk, a figure so absorbed in how the world perceives him that he forgets to see what’s right in front of him, with an understated tenderness. The actor adds a subtle physicality — from how he holds those rounded shoulders to the look of surprise that flickers across his face whenever Monk learns a new family secret — that contributes depth to his character. This complements Uggams’ increasingly somber performance as Agnes and Brown’s delightful comedic turn, which inspires comparisons to his role in Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul.

As with all contemporary writers poised for success, Monk gets a film deal — well, his pseudonymous persona does, at least, facilitated by hair-oil-addicted producer Wiley (Adam Brody). Here, Jefferson personalizes the film, edging in a number of good jokes about the screenwriting process and how Hollywood cannibalizes identity for profit. It’s also through this thread that American Fiction suggests that the existential crisis of the Black artist is kind of an impossible problem to overcome. Whether or not you agree with that conclusion is a different story.

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